Five Ways To Hydrate Oily, Acne-Prone Skin Without Causing Breakouts

Updated 5/19/20. Are you someone who gets clogged pores with frequent or occasional breakouts, yet find that acne products are too harsh and leave your skin feeling tight and dry? The moment you try to get hydration by using a heavier moisturizer, do you find this causes you to get more bumps and blemishes? If this sounds like you, then read on. I hear about these issues from my clients a lot, especially from those who are in their 20s, 30s, and even some in their 40s. These are people who are out of their teen years and still experience some breakout activity, yet have a difficult time trying to find the balance all the needs of their skin.  Here are five ways to ensure oily, combination, blemish-prone skin can stay hydrated, balanced and healthy-looking, without causing breakouts.

1. Avoid Using a Harsh, Acne-Focused Cleanser

Many (but not all) acne cleansers are loaded up with harsh detergents and strong ingredients designed to dry up breakouts on the skin. If you’re someone who only has 1-5 blemishes on your skin at any given time, think about how your acne cleanser is treating your ENTIRE face for breakouts that are only here or there. Drying out the whole face will result in creating a layer of dead skin cell buildup, which can trap oil and bacteria under the skin causing more bumps and breakouts.

First and foremost, only use cleansers listed as sulfate-free. This indicates that sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate and ammonium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate. These sulfate surfactant ingredients contribute to a drying effect on the skin’s surface. I believe using a gel-based cleanser with breakout fighting ingredients like salicylic acid is beneficial, but it just must be gentle. See my recommendations for sulfate-free cleansers.

Secondly, listen to your skin. Even if the cleanser is sulfate-free, if it leaves you feeling dry, then you’ll have to find a gentler alternative. However, (and this is super important!), after cleansing, make sure to wait no longer than 60 seconds before applying your next product. If you leave your skin bare for more than a minute, moisture evaporation will start to occur and the skin will feel tight—regardless of how gentle your cleanser is. You always want to use a cleanser formulated exclusively for your skin type so take this Skin Type Quiz to learn more.

It’s important to understand that cleansing is one of the most important steps of your routine. If your first step is using something drying, then everything you use afterward (toner, serum, and moisturizer) must do repair work to try to fix the damage created from washing with a drying, irritating cleanser. Note: If you have post-breakout red, dark marks from blemishes, these are no longer active blemishes with an infection so the strategy for treating these is completely different—and the focus should be on exfoliation, not drying out the skin with an acne cleanser. Read more here.

2. Always Use an Alcohol-Free Toner After Cleansing to Give Your Skin a Boost of Hydration

Toners are so misunderstood and toning is often not seen as an important step in a skin routine, but I’m here to tell you that it is—especially for oily/combination and dehydration-prone skin. Among the many benefits of using a toner after cleansing, it’s a very effective way to deeply hydrate the skin. Since your type of skin still has oil underneath the surface (this is the reason why you still get clogged pores and breakouts), your skin mainly requires water, and toners are a great way to get it.

After washing your face, wipe an alcohol-free toner over the skin and then immediately apply a serum. This will seal in the hydrating benefits from the toner so your skin cells are super plump and moist. Skin cells are like fish and need water to live, so don’t skip this important step. (Note: There is a big difference between dry and dehydrated skin and you really need to know what it is. Read this post.)

3. Give Your Skin an At-Home Mini Facial Using a Hydrating Gel Mask

One of the fastest and most effective ways to immediately hydrate your skin is to give it a 2-step treatment that includes exfoliation and a mask. First, you’ll want to exfoliate the skin to remove surface dry cells. There’s no sense in hydrating cells that are already dead, dry, and ready to hit the road, right? You can apply a gentle acid peel and leave it on for 10 minutes. Be sure to rinse off very thoroughly. Next, apply a layer of a gel mask all over the face. Gel masks are completely oil-free and (in addition to providing a soothing effect on the skin due to the cold temperature they naturally retain) they are formulated for delivering water deep within the skin cells to get your skin feeling really moist without causing any breakouts.

4. When Flying on an Airplane or When in Any Dry Climate, Use a Treatment Oil to Protect the Skin

I know you’re probably thinking, “An oil on my acne-prone skin? No way!” What you need to understand is that all oils are not equal and all are certainly not pore-clogging. Their purpose is to provide a layer of protection to make sure the hydration in your skin stays put and doesn’t evaporate out. So in the case of dry conditions where moisture naturally wants to escape from the skin (through a process called osmosis), using a few drops of a skin oil patted on top of an appropriate moisturizer for your skin type (perhaps something oil-free) can act as a sealant to prevent evaporation. Airplanes are the worst for making the skin feel tight and dry, so using an oil can definitely help. (See the experiment I did on a plane that proves how drying the air is.)

5. Always Use Products For Your Skin Type

While I’m sure you’re someone who tries to stay educated and keep on top of the latest and greatest when it comes to skincare, be careful of going it alone. It’s really important that you consult a trusted professional as they have experience in understanding the true needs of your skin. (Read these common mistakes when determining your skin type.) I can’t tell you how many times my clients have thought their skin is a certain type, when in fact it was something completely different. A good starting point for determining your skin type is to take my Skin Type Quiz.

You might be surprised that I didn’t have ‘drink a lot of water’ as one of the ways to hydrate the skin. Did you know that drinking water is the least efficient way to hydrate the skin? Read more about this here.

Lastly, go easy on using heavy skincare products because you could end up with clogged pores that could lead to more breakouts and bumps. Speaking of pores, here’s my expert tips for how to get your pores clean.


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  1. Avatar

    I am using your Skin Drink Serum and I am following the process you described above.Thanks for sharing this.

    Posted By: Elliot  | 

  2. Avatar

    Hi Renee! I am really depressed with my skin problems nowadays as my skin skin was never like this before.there are blackheads on my forehead and facial areas that appear as bumps and some acne appears repeatedly on specific area of my right face side,and they also leave scars.kindly guide me what to do

    Posted By: saba  | 

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    I’ve taken the skin quiz a few times and each time I get #6. I’ve been using many of the recommended products for quite a while, but according to my aesthetician, my skin is still dehydrated. Any suggestions?

    Posted By: Michelle Lenz  | 

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      I often hear that people will say that their esthetician will say their skin is dehydrated but this is just kind of a generic statement that many estheticians say. Signs of dehydration include the skin feeling tight or having flakiness. If you don’t have any of these, then it might not be bad. The best ways to hydrate the skin is to use an alcohol-free toner after cleansing, leave it damp on the skin and apply a serum and moisturizer. Doing these steps are a great way to keep the skin hydrated. Skin type #6 is a great routine and there isn’t anything that is DE-hydrating the skin. Sometimes climate can make the surface of the skin superficially dehydrated though. Also, make sure you’re exfoliating regularly.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

  4. Avatar

    I have to ask I have tried almost every single treatment for my acne/cystic pimples I tried Vitchy,Oxy,La Posa,tried Ceve worked okay but pimples came coming back,Mario Beascue, Clinic, (sorry spelled that wrong) I am now using clean and clear working okay but my skin feels tight. My question is every time I try something new my pimples keep returning in the same spot my skin still feels oily even after I use clean and clear moisturizer with acne medication in it. I need to know if this will help me need help.

    Posted By: Tina Fynbo  | 

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    I just want it to work around the mouth Area that’s all

    Posted By: Kathy Johnson  | 

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    Sorry, I did forget to mention that I also am using your Skin Drink Serum. That is why I’m curious to hear what you think about moisturizers because I am currently following the process you described above—gentle Aloe Cleansing Milk at night, then Elderberry toner, a serum (either BHA or Skin Drink) and Sheer moisturizer. Thanks!

    Posted By: Katie  | 

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    Hi Renée! I’ve been using products from your Skin Type #2 line, and have been seeing great results in keeping my acne mostly at bay. Now that it’s January (and I live in freezing Minnesota), it seems like the two moisturizers I am using (Sheer Moisture at night and Daily Protection SPF 30 for day), and exfoliating regularly (with the Mint Buffing Beads and the BHA Clarifying Serum), my skin still is a bit flakey and dry, especially after I apply makeup. (It’s mainly dry in the areas where I get oily in the summer, T-zone, around the nostrils, and chin.) Do you recommend I change my moisturizers? I do have a small oil diffuser/humidifier in my bedroom even, so I must need a more nourishing moisturizer. I’m not sure what to do because heavier moisturizers tend to break me out. Maybe to your Hawaiian Nourishing Cream instead of the Sheer Moisture at night? Any advice? Thanks!

    Posted By: Katie  | 

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    How can you tell if your skin is dehydrated? I have extremely oily skin with clogged pores and I’ve tried bha which clears my skin but dried it out seem to make it oily cause it’s overcompensating so then tried to moistorize which seems to cause more clogged pores.. Any solutions? I was on benzoyl peroxide products for months

    Posted By: Rebekah  | 

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      It sounds like your skin is dehydrated and out of balance. Most skincare lines don’t address your type of skin. Look at my 9 skin types here and take the Skin Type Quiz to learn about how best to care for the unique needs that your skin has.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

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    Hi! I have been suffering from a recurring cystic acne for about couple of weeks now around my chin area due to possibly a horrible extraction(with a needle)done by a friend who is a student in an esthetician school .So one heals and a new cyst forms.I have oily combination skin .Some clogged pores around my mouth area .I usually don’t get cyst that comes back..I’m looking for products from your line that will help my cystic spots!!

    Posted By: Janet  | 

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    I am looking for a product line for a new spa for the owner. Allure Spa in Salem, Va. Could you send me any samples if you are interested in providing products to this salon. Chances are we will be doing a lot of IV, V and VI skin types

    Posted By: karen  | 

    • Avatar

      Hi Karen,
      Thank you so much for your interest but we don’t have our products sold anywhere else other than our own skin care spas and website.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 


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